Kingsley Amis spends an evening with Dylan Thomas

May 5, 2014 at 6:33 am (BBC, beer, culture, literature, poetry, posted by JD, whisky, wild man, wireless)

Portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with wife Caitlin Thomas. Picture: Lebrecht  Thomas with wife Caitlin 

For no particular reason that I can fathom (the centenary of his birth is not until this coming October), BBC Radio 3 has decreed today ‘Dylan Thomas Day’. Oh well, this gives me an excuse to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951.  Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.

This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:

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I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened.  I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’

Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’

Instead of this we had an exchange of limericks. For this sort of thing to be fun, the limericks have to be good, ingenious, original and especially in mixed company, which this was, not scatological or distasteful (containing references to vomiting, for instance). These conditions were met only fitfully on this occasion. The time to be getting along to the meeting came none too soon. Thomas jumped up and bought a number of bottles of beer, two of which he stuffed into his coat pockets. He gave the others to J.O. Thomas to carry. ‘No need to worry, boy,’ the latter kept saying. ‘Plenty of time afterwards.’

‘I’ve been caught like that before.’

I realise now that this tenacious sticking to beer when spirits would obviously have been more portable confirms in a small way the view that Thomas was a natural beer-drinker, like many. But with a smaller capacity than many, perhaps the only defect in himself he seems to have noticed: there is a note of mortification in his remark to ‘Dai’ below. Anyway, he was finished off by all the bourbon they gave him in America, culminating in the famous eighteen straight whiskeys just before his death; but that was a good two and a half years later.

The bottles were still in Thomas’s pockets — he checked this several times — when in due course he sat rather balefully facing his audience in a room in the Students’ Union up the hill. About fifty or sixty people had turned up; students and lecturers from the College mainly, but with a good sprinkling of persons who looked as though they were implicated in some way with the local Bookmen’s Society. With a puzzled expression, as if wondering who its author could be, Thomas took from his breast pocket and sorted through an ample typescript, which had evidently been used many times before. (And why not? But I thought differently then.)

His first words were, ‘I can’t manage a proper talk. I might just manage an improper one.’ Some of the female Bookmen glanced at one another apprehensively. What followed was partly run-of-the mill stuff about his 1950 reading-lecturing tour of the US, featuring crew-cut sophomores and women’s literary clubs in pedestrian vein, and partly the impressionistic maundering, full of strings of compound adjectives and puns, he over-indulged in his broadcasts. Then he read some poems.

Of his own I remember ‘Fern Hill’ the best, a fine performance given the kind of poem it is, but for the most part he read the work of other poets: Auden’s ‘The Unknown Citizen’, Plomer’s ‘The Flying Bum’ (the Bookmen got a little glassy-eyed over that one) and Yeats’s ‘Lapus Lazuli’. His voice was magnificent, and his belief in what he read seemed absolute, yet there was something vaguely disconcerting about it too, not only to me. This feeling was crystallised when he came to the end of the Yeats. He went normally enough, if rather slowly, as far as:

‘Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes …’

and then fell silent for a full ten seconds. This, as can readily be checked, is a very long time, and since that baleful glare at his audience did not flicker, nor his frame move a hair’s breath, it certainly bore its full value on this occasion. Eventually his mouth dropped slowly and widely open, his lips crinkled like a child’s who is going to cry, and he said in a tremulous half-whisper:

‘… are gay.’ 

He held it for another ten seconds or so, still staring and immobile, his mouth still open and crinkled. It was magnificent and the silence in the room was absolute, but … (so 1957. Actually of course it was bloody awful, a piece of naked showing-off and an insult to Yeats and to poetry.)

I will cut the account short at that point. There was a return to the pub but still no pub performance. Perhaps he thought we were not worth it. Who cares? One has to record that many and varied people found him delightful company. That man is not all bad who said of his wife and the state she had been in earlier that day, as he did to Peter Quennell, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint passed out on the bathroom floor.’

Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets. At the start he boozed a lot because it fitted his image as a poet, rather than out of any real thirst or need: Mary Morgan — I have never seen this anecdote reprinted — found an old local drinking-companion to whom he had confessed as much: ‘I wish I knew where you put it Dai; I can’t keep up with you.’ But for the last eight years or more of his short life he had something to drink about. That famous description of himself as ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’ is sad and awful more than funny. He knew Rimbaud had stopped writing poetry fro good at the age of nineteen. Nearly all Thomas’s best work was written or drafted by the same age. He had a final burst of energy about 1944 but nothing after. And he was too sharp not to see it.

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Amis’s 1957 conclusion: 

Not very long afterwards we were all back at the pub, Griffiths [ie J.O. Thomas] included. With his performance over, Thomas’s constraint had disappeared and he was clearly beginning to enjoy himself. Griffiths, however, was monopolizing him more and more and exchanging a kind of cryptic badinage with him that soon became hard to listen to, especially on one’s feet. The pub, too, had filled up and was now so crowded that the large group round Thomas soon lost all cohesion and started to melt away. I was not sorry to go and sit down at the other end of the room when the chance came. It was at this point that my friends and I finally abandoned our scheme of trying to get Thomas up to my house when the pub shut. After a time the girl student who had been with us earlier, and who had stayed with Thomas longer than most, came over and said: ‘You know, nobody’s talking to him now, except that Griffiths chap.

‘Why don’t you stay and talk to him?’

‘Too boring. And he wasn’t talking to any of us. Still, poor dab, he does look out of it He was in a real state a little while ago.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘All sorry for himself. Complaining that everybody’d gone and left him.’

We all felt rather uncomfortable, and rightly. Although I can vividly recall how tedious, and how unsharable, his conversation with Griffiths was, I am ashamed now to think how openly we must have seemed to be dropping Thomas, how plain was our duty not to drop him at all. Our general disappointment goes to explain our behaviour, but does not excuse it. We were unlucky, too, in encountering him when he was off form and accompanied by Griffiths. At the time I thought that if he had wanted to detach himself and talk to the students he would have found some means of doing so: I have since realized that he was far too good-natured ever to contemplate giving anyone the cold shoulder, and I wonder whether a talent for doing that might not have been something that he badly needed. One of us, at any rate, should have found a way of assuring him that he was being regarded that evening, not with a coltish mixture of awe and suspicion, but sympathetically. Then, I think, we should have seen that his attitude was a product of nothing more self-aware or self-regarding than shyness.

 

2 Comments

  1. Rosie said,

    Still know Fern Hill and Do Not Go Gentle off by heart, however horrible Thomas was. I think he did start the cult of the drunk poet. Dylan Thomas drank like a fish and ergo wrote good poetry, I drink like a fish and ergo.

    • David Painting said,

      We don’t judge an artist, any artist, by his private life. Dickens, one of the greatest, treated his wife abominably, Wilde picked up rent boys, and there are scores of other examples.. Dylan wrote one or two superb poems and several incomparable short stories which place him among the best writers of the 20th century – let’s forgive the blemishes and remember the achievement.

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